Saturday, March 21, 2009

Japanese railroad workers of the early 1900's

From: "Edward Immel"

I am looking for either written information or photographs concerning the Japanese railroad workers of the early 1900's. I have a blue print of a "Japanese Workers' Bunkhouse" from 1905, but would like more information on the details of what amenities, if any, would be included in the bunkhouse. I am building a 1" scale model of the bunkhouse.

Thank you for any information or links that you might provide to me. ...

—Ed Immel


Blogger CPRR Discussion Group said...


The June 20, 1900 Dixon Tribune (1:8) reported that the SP was introducing Japanese laborers along the line of the Southern Pacific Railroad.

By the mid-20th century, probably the most common type of bunkhouse at SP section camps were four-family and six-family bunkhouses and the California State Railroad Museum Library has numerous plans for these. I don't know how extensively interior details are shown on the plans, though.

On the other hand, since the Japanese laborers probably did not have families with them and weren't expected to, the SP may have used buildings that housed larger numbers of men. The Shasta Division Archives in Dunsmuir has plans for a 12-man bunkhouse and a 20-man bunkhouse. Again, I don't know if these plans show interior details and I don't know if they are at all similar to a "Japanese Workers Bunkhouse."

Numerous section camps apparently had cook houses apart from dwelling quarters but the Shasta Division Archives has an interesting-sounding SP plan titled "Bunk and cook house for Japanese and Chinese." Contact person for the Shasta Division Archives is Bruce Petty, who can be reached through his Los Angeles River Railroads website.

In the early 1900s, the Santa Fe used Japanese laborers at its roundhouse facilities in California. I don't know if the SP also did this or if the SP had bunk houses for roundhouse laborers.

Plans held at the Calif. State RR Museum Library as well as those held by the Shasta Div. Archives can be looked up by going to the library's website, then going to the on-line catalogs, then going to Technical Drawings, then going to the basic search screen.

—John Sweeter

3/24/2009 12:25 PM  
Blogger CPRR Discussion Group said...

From: "Rachel Immel"

Thank you for your response and information. I will contact your recommendations.

There is so much written abut the Chinese workers, naturally, but very little about the day to day life of the Japanese. I've not heard anything back from the various Japanese-American societies I have e-mailed. Hopefully, I'll gain more information over time. Even such a simple question as "did the Japanese eat differently than the Chinese?", is very difficult to determine.

Again, thanks for your help.

—Rachel Immel

(I'm doing the research for my husband; he's doing the carpentry!)

3/24/2009 4:33 PM  
Blogger CPRR Discussion Group said...


Yesterday, I told of the June 20, 1900 Dixon Tribune report about the SP introducing Japanese laborers along its line.

Since then, in my notes, I've come across other early references to Japanese section hands:

July 4, 1892 Los Angeles Herald – mention of Japanese section hands in the Antelope Valley.

February 28, 1899 Visalia Daily Times – told of Japanese section hands at Cando (Cando was a station on the West Side line between Lillis and Caruthers).

March 14, 1907 Visalia Delta – mention of Japanese section hands at Goshen.

Goshen presents an interesting study of SP employment practices regarding section workers. It was common for the SP to suddenly replace all workers of one ethnic group in a section camp with workers of another ethnic group, practices that would never be tolerated today. Here are some other newspaper reports concerning Goshen (Goshen apparently had a fairly large section camp, responsible for the main line north and south of Goshen plus the branch to Coalinga):

April 23, 1886 Las Vegas Optic (Las Vegas, New Mexico) – stated that white men only were section hands on the Visalia Division (the Visalia Division went from Lathrop to Bakersfield, encompassing Goshen). It probably wasn't too long after this report that Chinese were employed at Goshen as section hands. Also, Chinese were most likely there before the white men. In general, the SP wasn't able to keep white men on as section workers, at least not in California.

By 1901, the section workers at Goshen were reported to be Mexican:

March 7, 1901 Visalia Delta (p. 3) – Mexican section hands at Goshen make the night hideous with their singing and shouting on pay day. Doing work formerly done by Chinese.

June 2, 1901 Visalia Delta (p. 1) – reported general strike among Mexican section hands at Goshen for higher wages.

June 22, 1901 Hanford Journal (p. 1) – reported Chinese back at Goshen.

The Chinese at Goshen apparently did not last long after the June 22 report. The October 17 and October 24, 1901 Tulare County Times (4:3) and the October 18, 1901 Visalia Delta (p. 3) stated that the SP has brought Italians, Austrians and Greeks from Ogden to replace the Mexican section hands at Goshen, with the latter being moved to Bakersfield. The October 17 Tulare County Times noted that only four of the newcomers speak English and that all carry knives on their belts.

It should be pointed out that it wasn't always the case of the SP summarily firing entire ethnic groups at a location. For example, the June 11, 1903 Morning Echo (Bakersfield) (5:3) reported that all the Chinese section hands at Bakersfield quit in a body the previous day to go picking fruit. This involved about 40 workers.

In my previous message, I referred to four-family and six-family bunkhouses. This is how they were referred to on SP plans but the term "bunkhouse" may be a little misleading since these structures were actually divided up into four or six apartments.

I also told of plans of 12-man and 20-man bunkhouses. Many section camps, though, did not have nearly this many workers. The Reno Evening Gazette around August 1885 (unfortunately, I don't have the precise issue date) reported that there were four to five men on a section crew every 10 miles on the Central Pacific. So, for section crews that size, "four-family" and "six-family" bunkhouses may have sufficed (it was probably well into the 20th century before family units actually started living in these dwellings, though).

—John Sweetser

3/25/2009 3:44 PM  

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